Let’s talk about building back better

By Robert Glasser

There was never a more appropriate time to examine the issue of building back better in the context of post-disaster recovery than the present.

Millions of people are on the move because of disasters.

In Africa, drought continues to drive rural-urban migration; 20 countries have declared drought emergencies in the last 18 months.

Over 40 million people are impacted by the ongoing floods and monsoon rains in the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

In the Americas, the lives of millions have been thrown into turmoil by a record-breaking Atlantic Hurricane Season which has thrashed homes, schools, health facilities and other critical infrastructure, including e.g. 3.4 million people left without power for the immediate future in Puerto Rico and the abandonment of the island of Barbuda.

The perennial threat of earthquakes was underlined in September by two powerful quakes which claimed hundreds of lives in Mexico. Much was done to build back better in Mexico City following the 1985 earthquake which claimed 10,000 lives, so despite the significant loss of life caused by these two latest events, progress has been made in building a disaster-resilient urban environment in the capital at least.

Turkey, Iran, Italy and Armenia are other examples of countries which have a lot to teach others about the importance of building back better notably in their commitment to ensuring schools and health facilities are safe from earthquakes following harrowing past events.

This year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction on October 13 sees the focus on reducing the numbers of people affected by disasters as part of the Sendai Seven Campaign which promotes implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the global plan for reducing disaster losses, and its seven targets.

Given the doubling of extreme weather events over the last 40 years, an essential part of reducing the numbers of people affected by disasters is to ensure that massive reconstruction and rehousing programmes such as those now necessary in Mexico, the Caribbean and the USA, are undertaken with future disaster scenarios in mind.

It’s a well-known adage in the disaster risk reduction community that the worst disasters which could happen have not happened yet and, in order to minimize the possibility of future losses, building back better means avoiding the creation of new risk, reducing existing levels of risk and managing any residual risk that cannot be eliminated.

The main drivers of weather-related disasters are increased exposure and vulnerability due to poverty, the breakneck pace of urbanization in low and middle income countries, population growth, the destruction of protective eco-systems, low institutional capacity to manage disaster risk and, increasingly, climate change. The magnifying effect of climate change includes sea level rise and associated flood and storm surge hazard, increasing cyclone wind intensity, erosion, saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers, water scarcity and drought.

The first deadline of the Sendai Framework is to have national and local plans for disaster risk reduction in place by the year 2020. It is vital that these plans dovetail with national and local planning for climate change adaptation given the clear overlaps between the two areas.

UNISDR will be publishing shortly new Guidelines on National Disaster Risk Assessment which will support these planning processes and which will be available on www.unisdr.org.
The importance of breaking down any demarcation between these two areas is underlined by research published in The Lancet earlier this year, which focused on the possible impact of climate change in Europe and found that weather-related disasters could affect about two-thirds of the European population annually by the year 2100 leaving as many as 351 million people exposed per year compared with 25 million people exposed per year during the reference period of 1981 to 2010.

This is clearly an area requiring further research and focus for the next generation of resilience practitioners especially on the likely outcomes for low and middle income countries where the resilience gap is greatest because of lack of resources. Least developed countries, small island developing states, landlocked developing countries and African countries, and middle income countries facing specific challenges, are all identified for special attention in the Sendai Framework.

Canada has much to offer the rest of the world when it comes to encouraging implementation of the Sendai Framework. The country is no stranger to disasters and has shown its commitment to international cooperation by hosting this year’s Americas Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction attended by 55 countries and territories in Montreal which approved a Regional Action Plan.

Canada’s experience in building back better after the 2016 fires in Alberta which displaced 90,000 people in Wood Buffalo/Fort McMurray is well worth sharing with the rest of the world, as well as the country’s experience in dealing with overland flooding.

One of the most appreciated discussions at the Regional Platform was triggered by the presentation of the new “Federal Flood Mapping Framework”, by Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Ralph Goodale. This approach can be replicated and adapted in other parts of the world facing similar challenges.

Canada has truly embraced the inclusive spirit of Sendai with its whole of society approach to disaster risk management. This is most evident in the Government’s development of its new Emergency Management Strategy in partnership with Provincial and Territorial Governments, Indigenous Peoples, and municipalities to better predict, prepare for, and respond to extreme weather events and other types of disasters.

*Robert Glasser is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction www.unisdr.org